An Interview with Mary Morton

HV Morton’s wife, Mary, sitting at their desk.

I thought readers might appreciate the following article, taken from the Cape Argus of 21 November 1968. It’s not often we hear from Morton’s wife, but in many ways she was a bit of a power behind the throne!


Featured today in our series on the women behind well-known men
Mrs. MARY MORTON, wife of the author, Mr. H.V. Morton.
By Neville Woudberg

The wife of a writer needs to be a confidential secretary, a psychiatrist, top-class typist, a cook, an income-tax wizard and be prepared to work for no salary, according to Mr. H.V. Morton, famous for his ‘In Search of…’ travel books.

“I know, because I am fortunate enough to have such a wife,” he told me at his home in Somerset West last week.

Mrs. Mary Morton is his severest critic: “She always suggests I cut the best bits,” he quipped, “but she is usually right.”

“Writers are often temperamental and they need wives who will understand their many moods. It has happened that after writing all day I decide the copy is not up to standard and tear it all up. Mary even understands that.”


When Mr. Morton starts his day’s work he writes in long-hand. After a few hours, however, he switches to the typewriter. Mrs. Morton types all the manuscripts.

“Actually, I am probably the only one who can understand his scrawl,” she said. “Even his typed manuscripts are so heavily changed that if you’re not used to them you’re in trouble.”

Once the manuscript is typed, they go over it together. Then the printers send galley proofs and they each go through a copy, marking any errors they pick up. Once that chore is completed they wait for the page proofs and go through the same process.

“But I reckon the toughest task is the indexing,” Mrs. Morton said. “An index is essential for a travel book but to produce it one has to go through the book with a fine-tooth comb.” She even fills in his income-tax returns.

Mrs. Morton was born in China and stayed there until she was eight, when her parents sent her to school in England. Her father was a tea merchant.

“Those days in China were fabulous,” she said. “Foreigners really lived in style. We had a huge home with a staff of about 18. We had our own tailor, laundry, etc.”


Mrs. Morton travels with her husband and at the moment they are preparing for a trip to Sicily. “We’ll be constantly on the move,” she sighed, “and I know I’ll be glad to get back to Somerset West. Don’t misunderstand me. I love these trips, but I also love my home.”

Sometimes it is necessary for Mr. Morton to visit a country three times before he has all the information he requires for a book. It was on their second such visit to South Africa that the Mortons decided to buy their 50-acre farm at Somerset West.

They also grow all their own vegetables. “That’s Mary’s job,” Mr. Morton laughed. “She supervises that side of the business.” Mrs. Morton took me to a little room off the kitchen, where there were two huge deep freezers. They were packed with frozen vegetables.

“Enough to keep us going for a year,” she said. “See that tomato puree? It’s been frozen since last year.”

Cooking is her special love. “Do you know that she has 150 books on cooking and that she actually reads them for pleasure,” Mr. Morton said.

“Well, you can always learn something new,” his wife retorted. “Cooking is either a chore or an art. For me it is an art.”

Mrs. Morton does most of the cooking at home herself and she always cooks when they have guests.

“Normally I prepare the meal the day before so that I’m not in the kitchen for too long when the guests arrive,” she explained. “I think South African foods are excellent. Often when we have visitors from England I serve bobotie and they regard it as an exotic dish. American food is most practical.”

For relaxation she likes reading – biographies and detective stories, and admits that unfortunately she does not have much time for serious reading.

What does she do when she is on a trip with her husband? “She’s jolly useful,” Mr. Morton cut in, “particularly in Arab countries, where she is able to get into the harems and find out all the scandal and juicy bits of information.”

She also gathers side bits of information, which she passes on to him. People often pester her husband “and she is most successful in dealing with them.”

“We have our share of excitement on our travels,” Mrs. Morton said. “Once, when we arrived in Athens to gather information for ‘In the Steps of St. Paul’ we landed in the middle of a revolution.


“We were being driven into the city when the driver suddenly turned into a barracks. There were soldiers all round. We had no idea whose side they were on or even what the revolution was all about.

“The driver jumped out of the car and started to tell the soldiers that my husband had pledged his support for their side. He was then called on to address the crowd which had gathered.

“Now what was he to say? He waffled on about poetry or something and when he had finished he was given a terrific cheer. “Next day a local newspaper carried a long ‘report’ on the speech. It certainly was not a review of his views on poetry but his supposed support for one side (whichever it was) and a lot of other propaganda.

“It certainly is an exciting life and I love every moment of it.”

This article was originally circulated as Society Snippet 093 on 2009-01-04. With thanks to VJ for tracking it down!

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